Juice WRLD: Rising rap star whose heartfelt lyrics conquered the US charts

Renowned for his freestyle raps, he brought an emotional intensity to contemporary hip-hop

Harrison Smith
Monday 30 December 2019 18:44
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He was named a top new artist at the Billboard Music Awards in May
He was named a top new artist at the Billboard Music Awards in May

Juice WRLD was a budding rap star whose lush songs about heartbreak, drug use and teenage angst propelled him from SoundCloud obscurity to crossover success at the top of the pop charts.

The rapper, who has died aged 21 after suffering a medical emergency at Chicago Midway international airport, was part of a generation of emerging hip-hop artists who were discovered on the streaming service SoundCloud before achieving mainstream renown. He was still a teenager when tracks such as “All Girls Are the Same” and “Lucid Dreams”, which sampled Sting’s “Shape of My Heart”, began racking up tens of millions of listens.

“I’m a jealous boy, really feel like John Lennon,” he sang in “All Girls Are the Same”, in a mopey voice that could veer from downcast mumble to braggadocios rap. “I just want real love, guess it’s been a minute.” In another track, “Legends”, he reflected on the early passing of two other rising hip-hop artists: Lil Peep, who died of a drug overdose in 2017 at 21, and XXXTentacion, who died after a shooting in 2018 at 20.

“What’s the 27 Club?” he sang. “We ain’t making it past 21.”

A confident lyricist known for freestyle raps that could last more than an hour, Juice WRLD partnered with teenage producer Nick Mira, using melancholy synthesiser lines and thudding bass for his 2018 studio debut album, Goodbye & Good Riddance. The album’s standout track, “Lucid Dreams”, peaked at No 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was listed as the most-played SoundCloud song of 2018; at the Grammy Awards in February, it was covered by Alicia Keys.

“There’s an emotional immediacy to the music and Higgins is doing more than just spinning his wheels,” wrote Pitchfork. “He sings often in weepy groans and emo snarls that match the blunt rawness of his lyrics … What he lacks in narrative, he makes up for in moody hooks, to the point that the nursery-rhyme simplicity of his singsong couplets can wash away the groaning melodrama of a line like, ‘I’m on the drugs way too much’ and needle it into your skull.”

In March, Juice WRLD’s follow-up album, Death Race for Love, topped the Billboard 200. In a cover story for Billboard magazine that month, he was singled out as “the primary ambassador” for emo rap, a moody stew of hip-hop and emo-rock influenced by groups such as Taking Back Sunday and Fall Out Boy. “Any rap that’s talking about what you’re going through is emo rap,” he told the magazine.

He was named a top new artist at the Billboard Music Awards in May, soon after concluding a European tour with Nicki Minaj. Amid the acclaim, some critics accused him of misogyny, pointing to his descriptions of women (“All girls are the same/ They’re rotting my brain, love”).

Many of his songs also referenced his own relationship to heavy drinking and drug use. He began mixing codeine with soda and hard candy in sixth grade, followed by Xanax in high school, but said he had started to cut back; the music video for “Lean Wit Me”, released in August, showed him in a 12-step recovery meeting and closed with the number for a substance-abuse helpline.

Born Jarad Anthony Higgins in Chicago in 1998, he was raised in the south suburb of Homewood, Illinois. He said his parents divorced when he was three, and he was raised mainly by his mother, a student teacher who steered him towards gospel instead of hip-hop.

Cousins introduced him to rappers including Lil Wayne and Meek Mill, and he soon learned piano, guitar and drums. By 16, he was putting songs on SoundCloud under the name JuiceTheKidd, inspired by the Tupac Shakur movie Juice. He later added World to his name, dropping the o to make himself more noticeable.

After graduating from Homewood-Flossmoor High School in 2017, he worked briefly at a car-parts factory and released several EPs. In 2018 he signed a reported $3m deal with Interscope Records, despite having performed in public just once, for $100 at a party in front of classmates.

Juice WRLD collaborated with artists including Lil Uzi Vert and Ellie Goulding, and partnered with Future to record the hit “Fine China”, part of their 2018 mix tape Wrld on Drugs. He also joined YoungBoy Never Broke Again to release “Bandit”, which reached No 10 on the Hot 100 in October.

In recent months he had settled into a mansion in Beverly Hills, California, where he rode dirt bikes, watched anime, played chess and recorded in his billiard room by night.

“I speak from the standpoint of the true definition of an imperfect person,” he said in March. “I want to be that person that leads people out of the place they’re at. And in the process, maybe I’ll find the key to get out of the place that I’m at. The low places I may wander into or get trapped in.”

Juice WRLD (Jarad Anthony Higgins), rapper, born 2 December 1998, died 8 December 2019

© Washington Post

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